The Mission to Educate and Empower Refugee Youth Hits Home

By Valerie Hang, PAIR Volunteer

It’s amazing how opportunities tend to present themselves when you least expect it. Taking a simple pause could change your life–that’s exactly what happened to me at the beginning of this semester.

On my way to a meeting, I passed by the usual board of fliers and advertisements against the wall. These would usually go unnoticed, but this particular time was different. I’m not sure what lured me, but that day I actually stopped by to see what that board had to offer. A bright green flier on the bottom corner of the board caught my attention and the following words immediately hooked me: “Educate and empower refugee youth.” Next thing I knew, I was jotting down the date of the volunteer meeting, with the sense that this could become a huge part of my life.

At the info session, the University of Houston chapter officers shared their passion and experiences in PAIR. As I listened, I became truly amazed by how much PAIR has accomplished in the few years since it was established, impacting refugees’ lives and helping them adapt to American society. I couldn’t help being reminded of my own family. My father and his ten siblings were refugees during the Vietnam War, fleeing Vietnam in 1977 as “boat people.” They had no choice but to separate and take refuge in surrounding places such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, and Hong Kong. There, they spent months in camps, surviving on their own with limited food or shelter. In 1980, they were finally reunited in the United States. The refugee students in PAIR’s programs have endured situations similar to what my family lived through. I knew it would be an honor for me to become a volunteer for PAIR, especially if I could make a difference in someone’s life.

Many Vietnamese refugees fled the country on small, cramped boats (image courtesy of Wikimedia)

Many Vietnamese refugees fled the country on small, cramped boats (image courtesy of Wikimedia)

Valerie attended after-school Global Learners sessions every week to tutor and mentor these students

Valerie attended after-school Global Learners sessions every week to tutor and mentor these students

Every Wednesday afternoon, I had the pleasure of spending time with the refugee students at Las Americas Middle School, tutoring them, hearing stories about their days, and participating in fun activities. I remember the first student I met was Amina , a shy, yet bright girl from Eritrea. Although she rarely spoke, she acknowledged my questions with a nod or shake of her head, and all I knew to do was to keep speaking to her, encouraging conversation and not giving up. By the end of the session, she appeared to open up more than before. She even told me that her favorite school subject was English! From that point on, I knew she–as well as the other students–wanted to speak, but was only hesitant. These students need someone who can overcome the language barrier to understand their situation and be there for them.

Valerie and other UH officers organized a chapter fundraiser

Valerie and other UH officers organized a chapter fundraiser

Volunteering with PAIR is such a humbling experience; we encourage students to come out of their shells and strive to reach their highest potential without any fear. I am looking forward to uphold my position as the new Vice President of the UH chapter next semester because I know I will be working together with insightful, caring people for the common goal of helping these students. After seeing the progress of the program in one semester, who knows what great heights we will reach next semester and beyond!